Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Looking for vampires

In New Zealand, vampires are a source of entertainment, but in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, they are the cause of real terror. At the Scoop Review of Books I've asked what's behind the reports of vampire murders in Vila, and wondered why a traditional, vampire-like character from the kastom of northern Vanuatu been adopted as an emblem by occultists and goths around the world. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Garrett's latest target

Did you know that the indigenous peoples of the Pacific are prisoners of a violent and tribalist mindset, that all Tongans and Samoans hate each other, and that almost any Tongan is liable to go berserk after imbibing even a modest amount of alcohol?

I didn't either, until I'd read the opinion piece that David Garrett, ex-MP and convicted identity thief and bar room brawler, published last week at Kiwiblog, the site that seems to have become an antipodean version of Breitbart. Garrett had been upset by the rowdy celebrations of Tongans after one of their recent World Cup rugby league wins, and by post-match scraps between a few Friendly Islanders and Samoans.

The discussion thread under Garrett's piece is filled with fusty stereotypes and with jibes against Pacific Islanders in general, and Tongans in particular. I made a few comments there, in an effort to correct Garrett's erroneous claims about Tongan history, about his eccentric understanding of historical research, and about his failure to understand the causes of what I call modern Tongan exceptionalism.

Garrett also has some interesting views on Muslims, Indians, and gays.

I'm pleased that the man's various personality flaws and his addiction to booze got him booted from parliament before he had completed his first term.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

The late First Cat

Aneirin and I are sorry to hear about the demise of Jacinda Ardern's cat Paddles. Aneirin had been fascinated to learn last week about Paddles' recent rise to the position of First Cat. He was a little sceptical, though, about whether 'the really big cats, the ones in the zoo' would recognise Ardern's little tabby as their ruler. Now that Paddles has passed on, Aneirin is wondering whether there will be an election to decide on a new First Cat. He's pondered whether our grumpy black tortoiseshell Smudge could be a candidate in such a contest.
Aneirin followed the recent general election closely - he saw the various parties' billboards on his way to and from school, and also noticed ads in the media. He decided that he supported The Opportunities Party after seeing a photograph of Gareth Morgan and a few of his chums on a motorbike. But then Cerian, who knows how to influence young minds, informed Aneirin that Morgan wanted to wipe out New Zealand's cats. Aneirin was mortified. He turned his back on the 'Motorbike Party', and became an enthusiastic backer of the 'Red Team'. 
Indeed, when he came into the polling station with me on election day Aneirin raised the returning officers' eyebrows by shouting 'Come on Dad, vote for the Red Team!' He even followed me into the voting booth, in an effort to influence my choice. I have a feeling that we won't be voting on the next First Cat, and even if we were I wouldn't want Smudge exposed to the stresses of electoral politics.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Shuffling cards

There's been a lot of public interest in and debate about the New Zealand Wars lately, with a commemorative day being held for the first time, a series of public discussions involving Vincent O'Malley, the author of a massive and authoritative history of the Waikato War, and some interesting arguments about whether monuments raised after the wars should be demolished or amended. 

Image maker Paul Janman has been documenting many of these events, and has also been finding time to help me edit Ghost South Road, the war-haunted book of images and texts that will appear next year. Where O'Malley's book is a mighty narrative, Ghost South Road veers backwards and forwards through time, and features frequent character and costume changes. Paul and I recently exchanged e mails about the book's (lack of) structure. 

In his reply to my e mail Paul mentions a recent turbulent protest-meeting beside the Otahuhu memorial to Marmaduke Nixon, a man blamed by historians for human rights abuses during the invasion of the Waikato. I'll be posting Paul's account of that meeting soon. 

Hi Paul,

I have been following the New Zealand Wars commemorations and the debates over monuments to the wars. Although I support the work that Vincent O'Malley and other revisionist, anti-imperial historians and activists are doing, I think there is the danger of replacing one teleological timeline of events, events that must be rote learnt by schoolkids and journalists, with another. 

The people and events in Ghost South Road are generally there because they have excited me: because they have somehow enlarged my sense of what is possible in New Zealand. But perhaps this is a privilege I have, this feeling of astonishment. If I lived in a mouldy rented flat down the road from a farm that was confiscated from my great-great-grandfather after the Waikato War then I might have a different, less aesthetic, attitude to the past. 

Nevertheless, I am trying to ask the question: how can we encounter, communicate, the feelings of surprise and wonder that history can cause? How can we make people feel excited as well as saddened by the past? How can we reconcile the necessity of remembering the dark parts of history with the possibility that the past might also contain sources of nourishment, of reinvigoration?

There was a tradition, in Britain and in certain other European countries like Germany, of historians keeping loose cards, on which they wrote notes about discrete events, people, organisations. The cards could be shuffled, read in different orders. Beatrice Webb wrote about the 'games with reality' that she and her scholar-husband Sidney would play, as they sat with their boxes of cards by the fireplace in the evening. When the Webbs wrote their research up, though, the games were replaced by neat linear narratives.  

Nowadays historians file their notes on computers: I suppose they'd need a programme or an app to simulate the old card shuffling. Keith Thomas, author of Religion and the Decline of Magic, is famous as the last historian to keep loose notes. He says he files slips of paper in various envelopes, depending on their theme, and begins an essay or chapter when an envelope has begun to bulge and spill its contents onto the floor of his study. 
Perhaps what we need, as well as the linear counter-history that Vincent O'Malley and others are so ably providing, is a sort of card shuffling history: a history in which different events and people continually appear, and in which the marginal people - the pushers of wheelbarrows, the Lawrence Beavises - and the apparently minor events - the theft and wrecking of one of the first motorcars to reach Auckland by a group of servant-boys - can suddenly appear alongside more apparently significant personages and doings, and can, through their unexpected presence, perhaps suggest new perspectives, new possibilities. That all sounds terribly waffly, doesn't it? 

I don't have much sympathy for his long-winded theorising, but I do like Gilles Deleuze's  advocacy of nomadism: his advocacy of an instability of opinions as a way of life, his warning of the dangers of arriving at dogmatic views on this or that subject. Perhaps a sort of nomadism of history is required, so that we feel excited rather than oppressed by the past. But I'm still groping in the dark, as you can tell...

Thanks for these views Scott. I am myself working in this sort of way. Using an app called Scrivener, I am creating a range of index cards that I return to and rearrange. The talk at the Nixon monument was an outcome of this way of thinking and it was interesting to test it out on an audience - both good and bad results. I think it's worth remembering that shuffling type literary technologies are best I think, when they are driven by a tested kaupapa. 

Take the I Ching for example - it is free associative but its power also resides in the accretion of thousands of years of experimentation and scholarship that is distilled into 64 archetypes. So yes, the results can be exciting and enlivening for history but it can also turn off an audience that doesn't know where you're coming from, or perceives privilege in the inevitable genealogy of your ideas. 

And yes, I think there is a danger in privilege manifesting itself in aestheticism. This is why the privileged historical poet still needs the inclusion of a suppressed community to temper his excitement by exposing him to their own immediate interests. In O'Malley, you've seen how an individual commitment and effort has played off an audience and galvanised a movement. More to say but I've got to get back to my marking!


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Is Jacinda a commie?

She's a pretty communist, said the placard a farmer brought to the pre-election demonstration in Morrinsville against Labour's plan for a tax on irrigators. After a photograph of the placard and its owner was run by the New Zealand Herald and other papers, social media teemed with discussions about the c word. On facebook and on twitter and on conservative blogs, many Kiwis insisted that Labour's new leader was, indeed, a communist. In the week since Ardern became Prime Minister, her allegiance to the communist creed has again been asserted.

In the comments boxes at Kiwiblog, New Zealand's most popular right-leaning blog, Ardern's communism is something like an article of faith. Commenter after commenter condemns Ardern as a dangerous extremist, but few offer any evidence for their political diagnosis.

In a recent post, Kiwiblog host David Farrar threw some red meat to the red-haters. Farrar quoted Ardern's claim that capitalism has been a 'blatant failure' at alleviating child poverty, and then noted that our new Prime Minister is a former head of the International Union of Socialist Youth. Given that history, what else could one expect from Ardern, Farrar asked, but resolute anti-capitalism?

Farrar went on to challenge Ardern to explain 'what socialism had ever done for poverty'.

Underneath Farrar's post, commenters accepted his insinuation that Ardern was a communist, and an admirer of societies like the Soviet Union and Mao's China. One commenter claimed that Ardern wanted to make New Zealand more like North Korea; another predicted she would build Stalinist gulags.
David Farrar’s grasp of the details of left-wing history and thought has often been uncertain. In a 2014 post to Kiwiblog he got the Communist Manifesto's publication date wrong by a quarter of a century, before going on claim that New Zealand's Labour Party had gotten most its policies from Marx and Engels' famous text. When he argues that Ardern is a revolutionary anti-capitalist because she once led the International Union of Socialist Youth, Farrar is either being mischievous or showing an ignorance of left-wing politics and traditions.  
The International Union of Socialist Youth represents youngsters from the organisations of the Second Socialist International. The Labour parties of Britain, Australia, New Zealand are included in the International, as well as Germany's Social Democratic Party, France's Socialist Party, South Africa's African National Congress, and scores of other outfits.

The member parties of the Second International share a social democratic politics. They don’t seek to abolish private property and the market and establish a planned economy, in the way that communists and other revolutionary anti-capitalists urge, but rather want to use the state to ameliorate what they see as the worst excesses of capitalism.
The Second International was founded in 1889, with the support of Engels. The Communist Manifesto had called on workers of the world to unite, and an international organisation was supposed to help its members to transcend national borders and parochialisms. Up until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 the International's parties were sometimes vexed mixtures of revolutionaries and social democrats. When war came, the leaderships of the European parties that dominated the International lined up behind their nations' flags and armies.

Vladimir Lenin, one of the most vociferous members of the International's revolutionary wing, was living in exile in Zurich in 1914. When he read in a newspaper that the German Social Democratic Party's representatives in the Reichstag had joined conservatives and voted in support of the Kaiser and war, Lenin at first believed that the paper was a forgery. When he realised that the leaders of the SDP and its sister really had sided with their bourgeoisies and declared war, Lenin denounced the Second International. After they had seized power in Russia in 1917, Lenin and his Bolsheviks founded a Third, revolutionary International, with its headquarters in Moscow.

After World War One the Second International slowly regrouped, and by the 1920s the Second and Third Internationals were competing for influence inside the trade union movements of the world.

In his book-length polemic Left-wing Communism Lenin addressed his followers in nations like Britain and New Zealand, where Labour parties linked to the Second International were far larger and more influential than revolutionary organisations. Revolutionaries should support the social democratic parties in the way 'a rope supports a hanged man', Lenin said. They should cooperate with social democrats inside the workers' movement, but at the same time criticise their rivals and seek to replace them in the hearts of the workers.
The Communist Party of New Zealand never had more than a couple of thousand members, but it made several attempts to affiliate with the Labour Party, in an attempt to put Lenin's advice into practice. The party was always rebuffed by Labour. 
David Farrar invited Jacinda Ardern to explain what her brand of socialism has done for poverty. I’d expect that, as a former leader of the youth wing of the Second International, she’d be inclined to talk about the likes of Michael Joseph Savage’s 1930s NZ government, Norm Kirk’s government in the ’70s, and Clem Attlee’s government in postwar Britain, and initiatives like the welfare state and the National Health Service. She certainly wouldn’t be obliged to talk about the Soviet Union or China.
There’s a sense in which some of the ideas of the Second International have been assimilated even by conservatives in the West. David Farrar's National Party supports many of the anti-poverty innovations of Second International parties, like a public health system and welfare payments for the unemployed.
There have been senior Labour politicians who were in their youth members of revolutionary parties – Marion Hobbs, who was a member of the Communist Party of New Zealand before she became a Quaker and a member of Helen Clark's cabinet, is one who comes to mind – but I haven’t seen any evidence that Ardern has ever been anything more than a social democrat. Not many revolutionaries have worked in the office of Tony Blair
We can get a sense of the distance of Jacinda Ardern's government from the revolutionary left by looking at the cool welcome that New Zealand's handful of revolutionary outfits have given it. The group that publishes a blog named Redline responded to Ardern's Prime Ministership with a piece called 'Tories out, Xenophobes in?' Redline denounced the new government's plans to cut immigration, and accused Labour as well as New Zealand First of 'anti-Asian racism'. Ardern's government will be, Redline predicts, the most xenophobic New Zealand has seen since the 1970s, when Rob Muldoon sent squads of cops on dawn raids against Pacific Island homes.

In an article published before Winston Peters gave New Zealand a Labour government, the Dunedin-based International Socialist Organisation was also critical of Ardern. The ISO blamed Labour's relatively poor electoral performance in a number of working class Auckland on the 'anti-migrant rhetoric' from Ardern and her comrades. For Redline and the ISO, the struggle between nationalism and internationalism that sundered the Second International in 1914 continues. Like the German Social Democrats in 1914, the New Zealand Labour Party of 2017 is guilty, they believe, of appeasing chthonic prejudices and kowtowing to its local bourgeoisie, instead of standing for internationalism and against capitalism.

When they call Jacinda Ardern a commie, David Farrar and others on the right are trying to elide two very different political traditions.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Fomenting happy murder?

Kiwiblog, the popular website run by National Party pollster David Farrar, has the tagline 'Fomenting happy mischief'. Farrar says that he was 'slightly sad and very relieved' when Winston Peters chose last Thursday to support a Labour rather than a National government. Kiwiblog's host was one of a minority of National Party luminaries who considered that a spell in opposition would be preferable to the compromises involved in a coalition government with Peters' New Zealand First Party. 

But few of the National Party supporters who comment at Kiwiblog were as sanguine than Farrar. Many were furious that their party could have won 44% of the vote in last month's general election and still be shut out of government. They pointed out that the Labour Party received only a little less than 37% of the vote, and that Labour and the Greens combined won slightly fewer votes than National. They deplored the fact that Winston Peters, whose party was chosen by only 7% of voters, ended up choosing the new government. They waxed nostalgic for New Zealand's old, First Past the Post electoral system, which would have kept both the Greens and New Zealand First out of parliament and given National a thumping majority of seats. 

A few commenters at Kiwiblog have turned from sadness and anger to fantasies of violent revenge against the man they hold responsible for the defeat of their party and the corruption of New Zealand's electoral system. On Saturday morning, a long-time Kiwiblog commenter who uses the nom de plume rightoverlabour used the site's daily General Debate thread to argue that Winston Peters was a 'terrorist' who deserved a violent death. rightoverlabour explained that:

I believe in eliminating terrorism. Winston is a political and economic terrorist. He has held the country to ransom, and is obfuscating on everything. His assassination would not be something I would shed a tear over. I have time for Jacinda, and the Greens ( even though I oppose most of their policies), as they have been open and transparent. But Winston is a despicable, narcissistic individual. Emperor Nero comes to mind as a close comparison. Sometimes the elimination of a clear and present danger is a necessity for the survival of a reasonable society. Assassination may seem a step too far, but a society has to protect itself from these types of individuals gaining power. Ask the Russians, Germans, North Koreans.

rightoverlabour's comment was quickly endorsed by another veteran Kiwblog contributor, who uses the pseudonym oldpark:

Total agree what an indictment. Why compare him to Nero, how about Poll Pot, who caused the deaths of Millions. 

It might be suggested that righoverlabour and oldpark are embittered eccentrics, whose opinions are not taken seriously even at Kiwiblog. By the end of Saturday, though, eight readers of the blog had upticked rightoverlabour's call for the assassination of Winston Peters, and nine had backed oldpark's comparison of Peters to Pol Pot. 

Some contributors to Kiwiblog have lamented the atmosphere at the site since Winston Peters chose Labour on Thursday. 'There is a lot of spite and denial on here at the moment', a National Party supporter who uses the pseudonym Disaster Area wrote. A contributor to the site who calls himself Kimbo suggested that National's supporters would have to pass through the famous 'five stages of grief', from denial to anger to bargaining to depression to acceptance, and predicted that their progress would be slow.

It is not only on Kiwiblog that supporters of the National Party have been dreaming of the violent demise of Winston Peters.  A series of facebook users have announced that Peters deserves to die for the choice he made last Thursday. In a comment made an hour after Peters announced he'd been teaming up with Labour, Blair Paterson, who identifies himself on his profile page as a former member of New Zealand's air force, argued that 'Uncle Winnie needs a bullet' and said that he was 'happy to do it for free'. In the same thread, Karl Green posted a montage of what he called 'the worst humans in history', in which Peters was featured alongside Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Osama bin Laden. 

Some facebook commenters seem to have been made incoherent by their rage against Peters. Angela Cryer posted this curious statement shortly before Peters announced his decision to form a government with Labour:

Remember who you are you traitor. If I disembodied you of your Maori blood you would be nothing but a pair of pakeha bloodshot blue eyes. I thought you were the future of this country. You were not elected. Nor were your body of advisors. None of you are representative of New Zealanders. This is no longer a democracy. You are a disgrace. I fear for my country and my fellow voters. All of whom you have betrayed.

Agitation at Peters' decision has filled some users of social media with literary daring. A twitter account with the grand title News of New Zealand posted this remarkable mixture of metaphors:

Full of Achilles Heels and festering boils NZ's new #CoalitionofLosers is a rocky ship headed for unchartered waters. 

David Farrar is not responsible for all the comments that his blog attracts, anymore than Mark Zuckerberg is responsible for everything that turns up on facebook. Nor can National's leadership be accused of inciting vitriol against the new government. 
In the speech and press conference that he gave on Thursday night, outgoing Prime Minister Bill English was courteous in defeat, refusing to condemn Winston Peters or impugn Labour's right to govern. 

But the calls on social media and Kiwiblog for Winston Peters' demise and the analogies made between a very slightly centre-left government and Pol Pot's Cambodia and Stalin's Soviet Union suggest that a sliver, at least, of the New Zealand right has succumbed to what could be a dangerous irrationality. 

I've blogged about the descent of parts of New Zealand's right into paranoia and conspiracy theory here, here, and here

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Double vision

[As I prepare Ghost South Road for publication, I've been 'filleting' the chapters by inserting accounts of some of the fascinating people I've met on my journey up and down the road. Here's a passage about my encounter with the remarkable Wiremu Puke.]

The last time I had visited East Hamilton my feet had been aching. Paul Janman and I had met Wiremu Puke at a café here, before beginning the third day of our walk up the Great South Road. Puke was a local. He’d arrived before us and settled behind an enormous bowl of latte. 

Paul and I had walked the twenty-six kilometres from Te Awamutu the day before, arriving in the dusk and rendezvousing with Ian Powell in the bar of Hamilton’s casino, where we’d eased off our shoes and drunk whiskey and cokes, and showed Ian photographs of the empty bottles and used condoms and Warriors caps that fly from passing cars and settle on the road’s grassy margin like driftwood on the beach of a desert island. Now we were hungover, with toothaches in our heels. Puke chuckled as we winced into our seats and ordered Diet Cokes.

Wiremu Puke has double vision. When he looks at the towns and villages of the Waikato he sees, behind and beneath and before their pubs and steeples and war memorial parks, the ancient landmarks of the Tainui people. In an essay he wrote to accompany a collection of photographs of the Waikato by David Cook, Puke imagines travelling in space and in time, to the summit of the sacred maunga of Taupiri centuries before Pakeha landed in Aotearoa, and looks down on the prelapsarian rohe of Tainui. He sees fleets of waka bringing kumara and pounamu up and down the river, swamps seething with guardian-taniwha, palisades sharp as dragon’s teeth protecting smoky kainga. 

For Puke, the past is as real, as palpable, as the present. The Waikato was the Nile of Aotearoa, his essay argues, and Tainui must restore the civilisation that the river nourished and demarcated. 

Puke is an expert on Tainui arboriculture, architecture, carving. He campaigns for the replanting of native trees along the river, for the extirpation of willows and poplars. He cuts pou for kohanga reo. He blesses buildings raised by Tainui’s commercial arm, like that boozy casino on Hamilton’s mainstreet. 

Wiremu Puke had worn a Waikato Chiefs jersey to the cafe. He had the lumpy, artificially elongated nose of an unlucky hooker or prop. He introduced himself by talking about his relatives in Yorkshire, his blood links with Whitby, James Cook’s hometown. ‘I was there a few months ago’ he said. ‘I carved for them. I’ve got connections to both civilisations.’

Paul had begun to talk about our walk, about our obsession with the Great South Road. ‘We want to do what Lord of the Rings did, but in reverse’ he said. ‘We want to document the real history of this place, not plant a fantasy from abroad.’ 

Puke had laughed. ‘Some of my rellies, they look a lot like the creatures in Lord of the Rings. Some of my cousins, you look at them, you think: ogres, trolls.’ 

But then he had grown sombre, and talked about his double vision. ‘The East Hamilton shops, the café where we sit right now, right under our feet – there are caves, and people are buried in those caves. The bones are still there, even though the entrances are buried. It’s the same all over Hamilton. The past is tarsealed over. They think they can forget it.’

Puke’s father was a Maori All Black, and one of the team of negotiators that got Tainui a Treaty settlement in 1994. The son saw his work as a continuation, a consolidation, of what the father had won. ‘It is a slow struggle’ he had told us. ‘One tree at a time. One mind at a time.’

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]